China touts its annual import fair as proof that it is open for business but Western corporate lobbies are less enthused, with some companies dismissing it as an empty propaganda exercise.
President Xi Jinping opened the second annual China International Import Expo (CIIE) on Tuesday in Shanghai with a speech declaring — as he did last year — that the country would widen foreign access to its vast markets.
But surveys by European and American business associations have found that many of their members view the week-long fair, heavily promoted by Beijing, as of little use.
The European Union Chamber of Commerce released survey results on Monday in which only half of its members said their participation last year resulted in business agreements, and just a quarter of participating companies actually saw those deals fully "realised".
China says $57 billion in deals were struck last year at an event portrayed as a way for foreign companies to find Chinese buyers for their goods and show Beijing's sincerity in levelling trade imbalances with many countries.
But the EU Chamber survey found that "too much emphasis had been placed on delivering quick, headline results".
"This lack of follow-through suggests pressure to create a positive public image of this event by promoting hasty signatures, rather than creating a sound environment for European companies to expand in China in the long-term," the chamber said.
Many companies who opted not to return this year cited "meeting bad contacts, (and) feeling 'cheated in different ways'," it continued.
Foreign businesses have long complained about crushing red tape, intellectual property theft and a playing field skewed in favour of Chinese companies.
"We expect this year's event to be supplemented by concrete measures to facilitate further market opening and increase foreign investment, not by empty promises that we have heard many times before," said Carlo D'Andrea, vice president of the EU Chamber, in a statement accompanying the survey.
A recent survey by the Shanghai arm of the American Chamber of Commerce in China found just 10 percent of member-companies saw participation this year as "very important", while 68.5 percent saw "no importance".
It added, however, that many of its members already manufacture within China and have little to gain from an import show.
Organisers say more than 3,000 enterprises from over 150 countries are attending this year's expo.
The state run Global Times dismissed the criticism by the business lobbies, saying foreign companies were landing fewer orders in China because of rising competition from home-grown rivals.
"Some Western public opinions do not take CIIE seriously and regard it as China's 'political show'. This reveals little understanding of China," the paper said in an editorial Tuesday.
"It has become increasingly difficult for foreign products to stay attractive to Chinese consumers, which all countries need to realise."